Cutting up long snakes

Mbabane, Swaziland | 26 Feb 2014
Bill Snaddon

Now it may come as a surprise but I am not actually a Swazi. That being said, I do have many things in common with Swazis. I like meat. I enjoy self-deprecating humour, and I admire modesty and (when earned) showing respect.

But most of all, like Swazis, I am afraid of snakes.

This is understandable because, as previously mentioned, I come from Terra Australias – that island continent with as many deadly snakes as you’ve had pap dinners.

And it’s those long, skinny slithering ones that really put the fear of death into me.

My fear of snakes is matched only by that other long and dangerous creature – the long sentence. The never-ending sentence with little sense and even less punctuation.

Long sentences confuse me, and confusion can be scary. I get tangled in the wordiness, much like how a snake can tangle you up before going in for its final venomous bite.

I find myself continuously repeating these long sentences in my mind, trying to find a morsel of meaning.

I have been called a “simpleton” and a “nincompoop” for criticising these beasts.

I have been accused of trying to “dumb down” the language. But what’s dumber? I ask: writing a long sentence that no-one understands or writing a shorter sentence that more people understand?

I have even been called dyslexic – usually by doctors. But I truly believe there’s nothing wrong with dyslexia. In fact, it can be a real strength. It forces one to focus the mind, especially on supposedly simple things.

Back to the task at hand: cutting up snakes… and long sentences.

It took the wise words of a former English teacher to bring snakes and sentences into the same picture. Many years ago, he quietly said: “Sentences are like snakes, if they are too long just cut them up.”

It was his diplomatic way of saying: “Bill, you really need to stop writing such long and ridiculous sentences, no-one has a clue what you’re on about.”

Now, to put the record straight, unless you’re a trained snake catcher or just plain courageous (or stupid), it can be difficult to cut up long snakes into smaller pieces.

Nevertheless, this English teacher’s words have stuck with me.

When I write a long sentence and start to confuse myself, I think of a snake and begin to chop. And when I read a long and confusing sentence – which can happen when reading government reports or NGO leaflets – I chop up the sentence in my mind, trying to render the words into smaller “bite-sized” sentences.

As you can see, I have just relapsed into my old ways. That previous sentence has 37 words.

To make matters worse, a guide on plain English says: “Most experts would agree that clear writing should have an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words.”

My mind eased a bit when I kept reading: “This does not mean making every sentence the same length. Be punchy. Vary your writing by mixing shorter sentences (like the last one) with longer ones (like this one). Follow the basic principle of sticking to one main idea in a sentence, plus perhaps one other related point. You should soon be able to keep to the average sentence length – used by top journalists and authors – quite easily. However, at first you may still find yourself writing the odd long sentence, especially when trying to explain a complicated point. But most long sentences can be broken up in some way.”

So next time you’re reading a government report, an NGO leaflet, or just a boring letter from the water company, get out your knife and start chopping. Or just start with the previous sentence.

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland 

#11_Cutting up long snaks_26 Feb 2014

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